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Feature: The Different Ends of the Professional Golfing Spectrum
Posted by: Nick Bonfield on Fri 10 Aug 2012
When we think of professional golf, we think of the Open, of the Masters, of large galleries watching the best players in the world competing for inordinate amounts of money. There is no doubt about it: if you are in the upper echelons of the Official World Ranking, you are set for life, both professionally and economically. Even those in the top two or three hundred make sums of money each yeah that the majority of human beings could only dream of. What we often forget is these people represent a minute percentage of professional golfers, and for the majority, it is a constant struggle, both to prove to yourself that you are good enough to justify your path, and to be able to support yourself and your family. We are all aware of the PGA and European Tours, and some of us have knowledge of the Challenge and Web.com Tours, but how many people are really aware of what the average professional golfer has to do to make a living?
Broadly speaking, professional golfers fall into three categories. PGA professionals, top tier professional golfers (PGA, European/ Champions Tour/ Web.com tour) and those trying to make a living on the ‘mini-tours’, as they are known. For contextualisation purposes, the number of golfers listed on the Web.com and PGA Tour money lists is 497, which is less than 2% of the 28,000 PGA of America members. Not all players become PGA professional though, as prospective pros are obliged to spend three years studying and required to spend 25 hours a week in a professional shop. This, understandably, puts many off, as spending so much time inside isn’t conducive to making it at the top level.
The changing fortunes of Ted Potter Jnr
The recent PGA Tour victory of Ted Potter Jr – one of those who decided against becoming a PGA professional - was a story that captivated many, and drew some attention to the struggles of golfers who are comfortably good enough to become PGA professionals but have that burning desire to make it on the big stage. It is extremely rare for PGA professionals (Ian Poulter being the obvious exception) to pursue full time playing opportunities due to other commitments, meaning most have to make an extremely difficult choice: follow their dream, or risk being left with nothing.
Potter turned professional at the age of 19, and started playing on the Florida based Moonlight Tour. He earned a place on the Web.com tour after finishing 73rd at PGA Tour Q-School in 2003, but missed every cut in 2004. Potter spent a couple of years, between 2006 and 2009, playing on the NGA Hooters Tour, a third-level tour where players pay to enter tournaments. In 2011, he divided his time between playing on the same circuit and attempting to earn exemptions for Web.com events through Monday qualifying. He did so at the South Georgia Classic and managed to win the tournament, before another victory at the Soboba Golf Classic gave him enough money to earn a 2012 PGA Tour card. In July, he won the Greenbrier Classic to earn $1,100,000 and a two-year exemption on the most lucrative tour in the world, when just two years previously he was struggling to get by.
Potter’s story highlights how difficult it is to break through, and the reality is he was one of the lucky ones. There are tens of thousands of golfers trying to emulate his achievements, but the truth is it won’t happen for the vast majority of them. Owen Davies is one of those players. He spent years touring as a professional and trying to break through, but ultimately had to accept defeat and move on to pastures new.
“I played various mini-tours including EuroPro, Jamega and at the end of the year European Tour School. The mini-tours are very difficult to make money at. EuroPro would cost £500-600 per week with only the top ten making £1000 plus in a starting field of 165. There was a cut at 50th, with 50th only making around £200. Tour school costs £1400 to enter with costs on top,” he said.
“You would have to finish top five on any mini-tour order of merit to make a proper living. This would be a similar scenario for the Challenge Tour, when travel is taken into account.
Indeed, many mini-tour players are forced to rely on support from friends and family and work as often as possible to try and fund their dream.
“The first year I had backing from parents and club members so I could play full time. After that I worked in a warehouse at Golfsmith all winter and a little in the summer to fund my golf. Many players do similar jobs. My first EuroPro event was at St Pierre with Graeme Storm. He was packing boxes in a warehouse at the time and two years later he won £350,000 for winning the French Open!”
It isn’t just economic factors that start to play on your mind, though.
“The biggest sacrifice you make is career wise. I played full time rather than going to university and many of your friends are busy getting ahead in life. Golf has given me a career in other ways, but I missed out on those university years which is a bit of a regret,” Owen said.
“Golf is an individual sport and it can be a lonely life. I always found I practiced better on my own and so you spend a lot of time working without any company. Playing tournaments can also be lonely and to be honest boredom can be an issue with only one round a day to play. The mini tours are not glamorous and you find yourself scratching around for the cheapest B&B and when you tee off at 7 a.m for a round, the rest of the day can be difficult to fill.”
Hearing stories like Potter’s, and gaining insights into the life of someone trying to make a living out of professional golf, offers a stark contrast to the glamorous image of tour life. Fortunately for Potter his struggles have been worth it, and Owen was able to forge a golf-related career, but others aren’t so fortunate. It really does put things into perspective. When the end of the season rolls round and we find ourselves feeling sorry for those players losing their PGA Tour cards, we would do well to remember they are actually the lucky ones, because for every person able to make a living out of golf, there are hundreds who have to abandon their lifelong dream.
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